In this special post, we interview Patricia Galipeau. Patricia is a Genomics Research Manager in the Reid Laboratory at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The Reid Lab focuses on Barrett’s Esophagus, a condition in which special kinds of cells line the esophagus and can develop into esophageal adenocarcinoma. Prior to working in the Reid Lab, Patricia worked as a research technician at the University of Washington where she also received her Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology.
Patricia learned about our S.P.A.R.K. online course when she was searching for a Scientific Illustrator to work with on a communication project. In this interview, Patricia describes how the visual communication strategies she learned from S.P.A.R.K. have had a positive impact on her ability to communicate with her fellow researchers and diverse audiences interested in the Reid lab.
Can you tell us a little about your work at Fred Hutch?
I am an integral member of a team of clinicians, informaticians, and scientists working to help patients with a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus.
People with Barrett’s have special kinds of cells lining their esophagus. They suffer from chronic acid reflux, and these special cells function to prevent its damaging effects.
These special cells don’t cause problems in most patients with Barrett’s and the condition can be managed with acid reflux blocking medicine. However, in a small subset of people with Barrett’s, their cells undergo changes and they develop a dangerous type of cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma. This cancer is difficult to treat and has a low chance of survival.
Our work at Fred Hutch focuses on studying the evolution of genetic changes in the cells in Barrett’s esophagus over time. Our goal is to understand the key changes specific to the Barrett’s patients who are most likely to progress to esophageal adenocarcinoma. In doing so, we can better monitor and treat these at-risk patients, while keeping those at low or no risk from enduring unnecessary treatments.
How are you involved in science communication and what has been your experience in making pictures?
My roles on the team have been very diverse. They include:
- conducting wet-lab experiments
- study design
- data generation
- data analysis
- creating figures for scientific presentations and publications
- grant writing
- and authoring manuscripts
Thus, I understand the goals of our studies, how data is generated, and what we are hoping to communicate in our talks and publications.
My depth and breadth of knowledge in these areas sometimes make it difficult for me to create simple pictures to communicate complex ideas. I have been responsible for making pictures that communicate such things as:
- Genetic changes over time and over physical space in the esophagus
- Complex genetic variation differences between individuals and groups of individuals
- Conveying changes in risk of getting cancer
Our audience can be highly variable. It ranges from patients with little scientific or technical knowledge but with a vested and personal interest in our work, to cancer researchers and epidemiologists who might know little about Barrett’s esophagus but who have a keen interest in our genetic evolution research.
What was the most helpful thing you learned from the S.P.A.R.K. course?
For a variety of topics, it was extremely helpful when a concept was introduced, main elements of the concept were explained, and then examples were given. This approach helped me understand the “why” behind each lesson and showed me how the concept worked in practice. For example, the idea that shape, size, and color all come into play to influence our perception of relatedness, but that they don’t have equal weight in their ability to show similarity was a key concept for me.
I especially liked how the videos explained how we recognize patterns by looking for similarities and direction. When we don’t find these, we get lost or frustrated and tune out and miss the opportunity for clear understanding. S.P.A.R.K. not only teaches the mechanics of effective communication through pictures, but also explains why people react in certain ways to our pictures. The course effectively shows how missteps in visual communication can negatively impact our ability to communicate with a given audience.
Indeed, the audience sweet spot concept was very helpful in determining the level of complexity required for my pictures. It’s helped me make my pictures more effective for my specific audiences.
I also liked how S.P.A.R.K. stressed the following ideas in every lesson:
- Putting concepts in context and leaving the audience with a message
- Having a path in your picture that people can follow
- Making the picture appropriate to your audience
- Using elements of visual language to refine relationships among components of pictures
- Keeping things clear by using white space and alignment
Overall, the most helpful thing for me was learning the elements of visual language. Particularly how to use certain elements for more or less emphasis in my pictures.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
I think the most surprising thing was learning how the brain functions when processing pictures. My design ideas changed dramatically when I realized how the brain quickly scans for patterns and relationships and can become closed to processing ideas if it doesn’t easily find these relationships.
Is there anything you’ve already put into practice?
Absolutely. I immediately adopted many of the concepts conveyed in the S.P.A.R.K. course for generating figures for a manuscript currently in preparation. It actually motivated me to completely redo some of the figures and they are much improved.
Additionally, I recently worked with a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, clinicians and bioinformaticians to submit a large grant application to the Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Institute of Health. The concepts taught in S.P.A.R.K. were immediately applicable for working with the graphics team while collaborating to generate figures. We needed to create images that could communicate our approach and our offer to people who had very different backgrounds and levels of expertise.
Did the course make it easier to work with other scientists or designers?
One of the things our team has adopted since I took the S.P.A.R.K. course is to draw a quick map on paper before trying to create any figure on the computer. Oftentimes we already know what things we want to group together and what main elements we want to show. Using iterative rounds of creating this “map” on paper has been very helpful in designing figures that convey what we want to say.
One of the most surprising benefits of the S.P.A.R.K. course was an improvement in my ability to communicate with informaticians who were writing code to produce complex images summarizing multi-omics datasets. S.P.A.R.K. gave me some language to convey what I wanted to achieve and reasons why the elements I was looking for were important. Additionally, I have changed the way I think about the use of color and white space. Importantly, I have a new awareness of the elements of visual language that shape the requests I make of informaticians who are generating figures for our projects.
Share your story with us!
We’re incredibly glad that Patricia has found the S.P.A.R.K. course so useful and very grateful that she took time to participate in this interview! Have you been able to put the S.P.A.R.K. strategies to use in your own work. Let us know on Twitter or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.